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Jewish Journal

Coastal Voters Could Pick New House Speaker

by Eric Roth

January 6, 2000 | 7:00 pm

The independent voters in Venice, Torrance and San Pedro may determine the next Speaker of the United States House of Representatives on November 6, 2000.

Freshman Congressman Steven Kuykendall, narrowly elected as a pro-choice Republican in 1998, plans to be re-elected in the 36th Congressional District. Former Congresswoman Jane Harman, defeated in her bid to become California's first female Governor in 1998, would like to take back her old seat. Both national political parties would like to control the House of Representatives, which the Republicans currently dominate by a five vote margin -- and there are expected to be fewer than 30 closely contested races.

So big money will flow like the Pacific tides in this race. As Kuykendall said in an interview with the Journal, "Nobody is going to go without money." Kuykendall spent $800,000 winning the seat in 1998, and Harman spent over a million keeping it in 1996 as a Democrat. Both candidates have voted for campaign finance reform, but both candidates are also considered excellent fundraisers.

But there's a hitch. California's 36th Congressional district stretches along the coastline from Torrance and San Pedro in the south to Venice Beach in the north, and includes both the Los Angeles International Airport, the Port of Los Angeles and Catalina Island. It's 342,000 registered voters are among the least ideological, party-label driven voters in the nation. The district includes 3 percent more registered Republicans than Democrats.

"It's not a district for a traditional Democrat or traditional Republican, but one for an effective independent," notes Harman. Back when Ross Perot was effective, he polled over 20 percent of the vote in 1992 on the Reform Party ticket.

According to Kuykendall, the highlights of his first year include pushing Congressional leaders to focus on balancing the budget and adding amendments to proposed tax cut legislation. Kuykendall also helped pass legislation to redredge the Marina Del Rey Harbor and reduce traffic congestion around Los Angeles Airport. The incumbent also promotes himself as moderate with a bipartisan approach to appeal to fiscally conservative, socially moderate district voters, many of whom are Jewish.

But Harman will no doubt remind the district's Jewish voters of her "incredible" final week in Congress. Harman flew to Israel with President Clinton on Air Force One, witnessed the PLO change its charter to recognize Israel, and cast four votes against Clinton's impeachment. As an influential moderate Congressional representative from a swing district, she played a role in and held a front row seat to those historical events.

It's understandable that Harman, a moderate known for her interest in military issues and foreign affairs, wants to represent the 36th Congressional district again. But she won a razor thin victory against Gingrich protégé Susan Brooks in 1994, and she'll have another tough fight this time around. Both Harman and Kuykendall have cultivated close working relationships with the district's leading businesses such as Hughes Electronics, Northrop Grumman, and Los Angeles International Airport.

Harman, who used to describe herself as one half of the House's Jewish Women's Caucus, hopes to rejoin an expanded caucus after the 2000 election. The strong support of Governor Gray Davis and the Democratic National Committee for her former Congressional seat remains another reason for Harman's confidence in her comeback campaign. Analysts believe that Democrats have an excellent opportunity to win back control of the House of Representatives in November 2000 elections -- especially if Harman can wage a successful comeback.

Whether she can depends on how ably she can differentiate herself from her moderate opponent in the minds of voters. "Kuykendall is a decent man," says Harman. "I differ with him, however, on a number of issues."

A prime example, according to Harman, was Kuykendall's vote against a bipartisan HMO reform bill. The Norwood-Dingell bill would have established a Bill of Rights for HMO patients including the right to sue HMOs, prohibited physician gag orders and restored the right to choose a physician. Although 67 Republican Congressional members crossed party lines to support Norwood-Dingell, Kuykendall voted against the HMO reforms.

Responds Kuykendall: "I voted for two other versions allowing individuals to sue HMOs just before. I was just concerned that small businesses might be held responsible. We don't want to discourage small businesses from providing health insurance."

Campaign finance reform is another critical issue for Harman. "I voted for the earlier and stronger version of McCain/Feingold," notes Harman. "I also co-introduced a bill to challenge the Supreme Court's decision that giving money is a form of free speech." Common Cause, the good- government organization that lobbies for campaign finance reform, supports challenging that controversial decision to reduce the role of money and special interests in politics.

Yet the concentration of so many export industries also lead to both Harman and Kuykendall focusing a great deal of attention to trade issues. "I'm a free- trade Democrat," says Harman who voted against NAFTA, but for GATT. "The US interests in the global economy need to be explained."

"It is my considered judgment that the South Bay will flourish under reasonable and reliable trading rules," concludes Harman based on personal experience. Sidney Harman, Jane's husband, owns Harman International, a premium audio systems manufacturer headquartered in Martinsville, Indiana, that has plants in the United States and Europe. Worldwide exports have been a key factor in the company's expansion in the last decade. Kuykendall has also supported recent trade agreements, including legislation to increase exports from Africa. Trade, however, remains controversial in the district's voters.

Harman, an experienced campaigner and lobbyist, believes that the World Trade Organization has created some of its own public relations problems by being excessively secret. "Obviously anything called the World Trade Organization will be misportrayed." In hindsight, Harman believes it would have been better if the Seattle conference had not been held. Harman supports China's admission to the WTO, and believes that sometimes quiet negotiations among trading partners will lead to better results than public disputes.

America's continuing prosperity and power, according to both candidates, rests on expanding trade and maintaining a strong military. "The military budgets have been declining for 14, 15 years," notes Kuykendall. "We need to replace military equipment and spend more to improve recruitment and have a better retention." Congressman Kuykendall serves on the Armed Services, the Science and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committees of the House.

The daughter of a refugee physician from Nazi Germany, Harman also supports modernizing the American military. Harman's vigorous support for a missile defense system lead the left-leaning magazine Mother Jones to put her on their "Dirty Dozen" list in 1996. Defense contractors are important industries and major employers in the 36th district, and the relatively affluent district includes an estimated 13 percent military veterans. Harman sat on the House Security Committee and developed a reputation as an expert on military intelligence.

Perhaps the importance of America's superpower status can best be seen in the Mideast. "I want Israel to be secure," said Harmon. "And I want the United States to do whatever it can to make that happen."


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